Pushing Bollywood to the Wall: Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan question 'civil liberties' in India

Repeatedly targeting some segments of the industry, or using films to score political points and for propaganda will certainly destroy the familial bonds that are the hallmark of our film industry.

Amitabh Bachchan inaugurates the 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival as Shah Rukh Khan and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee look on. (Photo: Getty Images)
Amitabh Bachchan inaugurates the 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival as Shah Rukh Khan and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee look on. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jagdish Rattanan

Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, two of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars, have come out to make statements of the kind they have never made before. Speaking at the Kolkata International Film Festival on December 15, Bachchan spoke of “questions being raised on civil liberties and freedom of expression” while Khan spoke of “narrowness” on social media. Their statements are offered as proof that the BJP and its affiliates have crossed all boundaries in their bid to control, command and dictate to the rest of the nation what to eat, what to wear, and now, what to see on movie screens.

The situation is so bad that even Bollywood, otherwise traditionally supine, can’t take it anymore. All of this would be a fair presentation of the controversy that has been created by the pre-release promos of a song from SRK’s latest, Pathan, in which Deepika Padukone wears a skimpy saffron-ish attire and dances to the words ‘besharam rang...’

The speed with which the BJP and its fringes have whipped up protests in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra and demanded that the movie be banned or the colour of Padukone’s dress be changed— even though orange (rather than saffron) is just one of the many colours she wears in the performance—points to a concerted attempt to target Shah Rukh Khan, who has presented Pathan as his comeback film after a gap of four years. This will not be the first time that Khan, or other film personalities, has been targeted.

The episode in which his son Aryan was picked up by non-State players and delivered to the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), which recorded a formal arrest even though drugs were never found on him, and money was demanded by self-styled mediators, remains a shame and points to high levels of corruption in the NCB. That case led to a transfer but a full-scale investigation and criminal charges into the murky workings of the NCB wait for another day.

Aryan was eventually not charged by the NCB under a new team leader because of lack of evidence. But even before that, actor Juhi Chawla stood surety for bail for Aryan, a testimony to the deep bonds that help Bollywood thrive. All classes and faiths have worked together here for generations to make movies, money and the magic that gives India a lot of its influence and soft power across continents.

The bonds across strata, regions and religions that we see in the film industry should make India proud even though Bollywood in itself can equally be criticised for producing a lot of muck that is one cause of a push towards anti-intellectualism which paradoxically gives rise to the kind of messaging and protests that the BJP feeds on.

We are amusing ourselves to death, as the title of a book by that name puts it, and what is worse, a lot can be said about the currency of that amusement. Things are of course changing on this front; more experimentation is possible and is happening as more talented directors-actors come in and new distribution formats and models open, but the change is slow.

Yet, this Bollywood, as it is, is not to be trifled with. It is best to leave Bollywood to itself, and to let the system generate its own experiments, build its own ideas and present them in the form that the audiences might lap up.

It is said we get a government we deserve; it is equally said we get the films that we like and deserve. Repeatedly targeting certain segments of the industry, or propping up some other sections to create divisions, or using films to score political points and build pre-election propaganda will certainly break the familial bonds that are the hallmark of our film industry. It may be difficult for the BJP to keep to these limits, particularly at a time when the party sees success in gobbling up more and more open spaces and controlling the narrative so much that even the usually dissent-allergic stars begin to speak.

From a purely pragmatic lens, this control over the short haul will cost the BJP in the long run. As it is, it is difficult to escape the notion that the rise of the BJP has come alongside an increasingly topdown control of the party apparatus, with one man and his chosen lieutenant in control and willing to pull down or bring up anyone they might wish.

This is a high command mode of the kind the BJP or its earlier forms have never had. In this set up, the best way to grow politically is to rustle up an issue that can come to the headlines, playing along religious divisions and hoping that you will catch the fancy of the ‘high command’ and get picked up for a bigger role, or at least remain in the running in your current role.

This dynamic creates tension where there is none; it whips up sentiment and burns up effigies on non-issues, but it misses the most important elements of governance. Usually, it works like this: a state home minister encouraging mobs often seeks to divert attention from his poor performance on core issues of law and order; an NCB official targeting Khan, as did happen, runs an opportunistic raid to escape scrutiny on the integrity of his actions here and elsewhere; a party worker taking to the streets brings himself into limelight the moment he plays a communal card.

Event management may have begun at the top but it quickly percolates to become a disease across the wide reaches of the party today, eating into the vitals of the nation. What is worse, there seems to be a confident belief within that this brings votes, and that as long as the pot is boiling people will be distracted, that the song and dance will keep them engaged and the ticket counters will continue to do business.

That was mostly Bollywood’s model. Now the State has become a version of Bollywood— some mirch-masala and we will live on till the day the movie ends and the harsh reality of weak governance, widespread unemployment and a nation weakened by internal strife strikes us hard.

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